CHAPTER XL. THE GREATEST HORSE-EXPRESS SERVICE IN THE WORLD - EQUIPMENT FOR THE ROAD - A SIBERIAN "SEND-OFF" - POST TRAVEL ON THE ICE - BROKEN SLEEP - DRIVING INTO AN AIR-HOLE - REPAIRING DAMAGES - FIRST SIGHT OF IRKUTSK
"Oootonoole!" ("We got drowned") was the reply. "Get out your ropes, quick, while I run to the shore for some driftwood. The horses will freeze and sink in a few minutes. Akh! My God! My God! What a punishment!" and, tearing off his outer fur coat, he started at a run for the shore. I did not know what he expected to do with driftwood, but he seemed to have a clear vital idea of some sort, so Price and I rushed away after him. "We must get a tree, or a small log," he explained breathlessly as we overtook him, "so I can crawl out on it and cut the horses loose. But God knows," he added, "whether they'll hold out till we get back. The water is killing cold." After a few minutes on the snowy beach, we found a long, slender tree-trunk that our driver said would do, and began to drag it across the ice. Our breath, by this time, was coming in short, panting gasps, and when Schwartz, Malchanski, and the other driver, who ran to our assistance, took hold of the heavy log, we were on the verge of physical collapse. When we got back to the air-hole, the horses were still swimming feebly, but they were fast becoming chilled and exhausted, and it seemed doubtful whether we should save them. We pushed the log out over the broken edge of the ice, and five of us held it while our driver, with a knife between his teeth and a rope about his shoulders, crawled out on it, cut loose one of the outside horses and fastened the line around its neck. He then crept back, and we all hauled on the line until we dragged the poor beast out by the head. It was very much exhausted and badly scraped by the sharp edge of the ice, but it had strength enough to scramble to its feet. We then cut loose and hauled out in the same way the outside horse on the other side. This one was nearly dead and made no attempt to get up until it had been cruelly flogged, but it struggled to its feet at last. Cutting loose the thill-horse was more difficult, as its body was completely submerged and it was hard to get at the rawhide fastening that held the collar, the wooden arch, and the thills together, but our plucky driver succeeded at last, and we dragged the half-frozen animal out. Rescue came for him, however, too late. He could not rise to his feet and died, a few moments afterward, from exhaustion and cold. Fastening ropes to the half-submerged sleigh and harnessing to it the horses of the other team, we finally pulled that up on the ice. Leaving it there for the present, we made traverses back and forth across the river until we found the line of evergreen trees, and then started for the nearest post-station - Price and I riding with Malchanski and Schwartz while our driver followed with the two rescued horses. When we reached the post-station, which was about seven miles away, it was between three and four o'clock in the morning; and, after rousing the station-master and sending a driver with a team of fresh horses after the abandoned sleigh, we drank two or three tumblerfuls of hot tea, brought in blankets and pillows from the sleigh of Schwartz and Malchanski, and went to bed on the floor. As a result of this misadventure, our homeward progress was stopped, and we had to stay at the village of Krestofskaya two days, while we repaired damages. Our sleigh, when it came in that morning, was a mass of ice; our fur bag, blankets, pillows, and spare clothing were water-soaked and frozen solid; and the contents of our leather pouches were almost ruined. By distributing our things among half a dozen houses we succeeded in getting them thawed out and dried in time to make another start at the end of the second day; but after that time I did not allow myself to fall asleep at night. We had escaped once, but we might not be so fortunate again, and I decided to watch the line of evergreen bushes myself. When we lost the road in the darkness afterward, as we frequently did, I made the driver stop and searched the river myself on foot until I found it. The danger that I feared was not so much getting drowned as getting wet. In temperatures that were almost continuously below zero, and often twenty or thirty degrees below, a man in water-soaked clothing would freeze to death in a very short time, and there were so many air-holes and areas of thin ice that watchfulness was a matter of vital necessity.
Day after day and night after night we rode swiftly westward, up a river that was always more than a mile in width and often two or three; past straggling villages of unpainted log houses clinging to the steep sides of the mountainous shores; through splendid precipitous gorges, like those above the Iron Gate of the Danube; along stretches of flat pasture land where shaggy, white Yakut ponies were pawing up the snow to get at the withered grass; through good-sized towns like Kirinsk and Vitimsk, where we began to see signs of occidental civilisation; and finally, past a stern-wheel, Ohio-River steamboat, of primitive type, tied up and frozen in near the head of navigation at Verkholensk. "Just look at that steamer!" cried Price, with an unwonted glow of enthusiasm in his boyish face. "Doesn't that look like home?" At Verkholensk we abandoned the Lena, which we had followed up almost to its source, and, leaving the ice for the first time in two weeks, we started across country in a line nearly parallel with the western coast of Lake Baikal. We had been forty-one days on the road from Okhotsk; had covered a distance of about 2300 miles, and were within a day's ride of Irkutsk.